Written for soigneur.nl August 2019
I’m sat in the back row of a six person Buick people carrier holding on for dear life and feeling very, very queasy. Our driver, squat, bald and round bellied is doing his level best to keep up with the sleek and speeding black Merc carrying the boss of the Dujiangyan Sports Bureau. This guy is the main man. He has the power to approve, or not, our proposal to bring our cycling race to his roads, including the running of a test event that is due to start in 24 hours, which at this point in time happens to be very twisty and unforgiving on my stomach. Great for riding, less so for being a back seat passenger in a speeding car.
Thankfully it’s lunch time and much like the French there are no quick pit stops here. We’re ushered down a small alley and I’m placed in front of a steaming bowl of freshly made noodles. The Europeans sit on one table and the Chinese team take one table each to themselves. Lunch is taken seriously and so it should be. My car sickness doesn’t give me much of an appetite so I leave the noodles and take a stroll down the alleyway to get some air. It’s like watching an early 2000’s Michael Palin travel episode on China; but this is 2019. A few blocks away from the shiny, towering CBD and the 8 lane freeways the bustle of the traditional Chinese daily routine isn’t going anywhere. Groups of pensioners huddled around too small tables playing Mahjong with obligatory cigarettes hanging from the corners of mouths, a gapped tooth old man sits preparing some green vegetables and a handful of inquisitive small children stare at me from dark doorways. Tomorrow we welcome 20 guests to ride with us.
You work in Cycling, in China?
How’s that working out for you? Aren’t they trying to steal all our amazing Western ideas? Isn’t the riding awful? Not exactly. How much time have you got? I could talk about it for days.
China is a country so large and so curiously chaotic in its mannerisms it is entirely overwhelming. China to me is like the (proverbial, to be clear) eating of an elephant. You have to eat it slowly and in small pieces. Sometimes taking a long time to chew each mouthful. Mindful eating. Mindful learning. Same same. Take what’s in front of you and go step by step. Don’t try and understand it all in one go, you will fail. Even when you think you understand it, you’ll likely have misunderstood it and will need to start again. Let’s start relatively small in Sichuan, a colourful, largely rural province in the Southwest of China. Take your left hand, palm facing toward you and fingers to the sky. Do a 45 degree turn of your wrist. Your fingers are pointing to the right. This is China in your hand. Your index finger is roughly where Beijing is. Your ring finger is Shanghai. Go due West from Shanghai and stop around three quarters in. The heel of your hand indicates the start of the Tibetean Plateau, where things start getting really wild.
Welcome to Sichuan.
The route has been agreed, and Friday morning dawns meaning that today we start to ride, a mixture of local riders and friends from Asia and Europe. It’s one of those grey October tupperware days, where the lid is on super tight. We head out of the city trying not to think too hard about the seemingly chaotic traffic rules and regulations which soon start to make sense when relaxing into the concept of continuous flow. The air feels fresh against my cheeks as I steadily climb a narrow, twisting mountain road taking us away from the city. Just like you would see in the Alps, the low hanging mist loiters over the valleys but hangs on bamboo and gingko rather than oak and pine. Scruffy mismash flavour dogs hang out in the ditches, their untrusting eyes following the wheels as we pass. In and amongst these bamboo forests we learn, are wild pandas, but not many, maybe less than 2,000 now are truly wild.
After riding, we go to a panda research base to see a few up close and personal. It’s surreal. They are crying out to be petted, cuddled, instagrammed, it’s the brainwashing of cute panda paraphernalia that greets you at every turn in this province. Taxis are donned with panda faces on the bonnet and giant plastic pandas decorate intersections. Young women hang outside tourist attraction car parks covered head to toe in synthetic highly flammable panda tat, occasionally getting shooed away by the police.
The climate in Sichuan can be extreme. The summer air becomes syrupy and mosquito filled, and the winters air holds snow. The province can suffer from devastating earthquakes, and each summer roads get washed away by the rains. It’s undeniable that the not so small elephant in the room is the air quality, which can and should stop bike racing in its tracks. But go outside of the big cities, choose the seasons correctly, and everything is good. Professional bike racing has been held in Sichuan for many years now, drawing thousands of cell phones accompanied by their owners to the roadsides, locals eager to be a part of the circus, even if they don’t really understand what is going on and why, and on some occasions, they’re there because they were told to be. The Tour of China passes through the region on certain years bringing with it the potential for further growth of the sport here, on many levels. Some industry players see it as a way to capitalise on bringing Chinese wealth into the West, others see it more as an opportunity to grow the culture domestically. For many years China has been looking outwards, and now, China is realising that actually what they have in this diverse and complex country is really quite unique. There will always be the lure of the shiny sophisticated west though, and at its simplest as an example, Chinese riders now are tapping into Zwift as a way to compare themselves against their Western counterparts.
Day two of riding, and the mood within the test event camp is high. The stresses and strains of placing riders on the road for the first day have subsided, and our European race director’s face has a little more colour to it this morning over a breakfast of green tea and congee. Today we will ride up into the high foothills, past farmsteads and small villages where we will be greeted by small children peering out from underneath blunt haircuts and proud women offering the freshest fruits beautifully displayed. The local people here are resilient, hardy, real, curious. They stand outside of their houses watching our lycra clad circus roll through their sleepy town. I feel like I am being constantly and unashamedly filmed. Promotion is promotion, I suppose. Becoming a celebrity in China is OK with me.
The pace quickens as we reach the end of the route, riders challenging each other to go quicker and race to the end on perfectly tarmacked quiet roads.
You eat what in China?
A few hours later we’re sat in front of the’ anything goes’ traditional Sichuan hot pot dinner. The westerners converge in one booth, the locals in the booth next door. We are presented with a number of dishes that are piling up on the table around the bubbling vat of red broth, and at first cautiously place the items into the fiery oil. An hour and several beers later disregard is given to caution and manners as various foodstuffs are thrown in and fished out some minutes later. We’re feeling pretty adventurous in our cosy booth, until welcomed into the booth next door to see the real deal where everything goes. Well, at least nothing is wasted. A batch of hot banana and sugar pancakes are delivered to polish off the entire experience and ruddy cheeked we spill out into the night air, careful to avoid the steady stream of electric scooters and city bikes rushing past.
The lid of the tupperware has finally been prised off and a bluebird sky makes the green mountain we’re at the bottom of pop like Watopia. Strava tells us (yes, it works here) that the Puhong road is a popular segment. We’ve set up our time trial rig at the bottom of the climb and eager volunteers wait at the top with some water and food. Our Chinese guests are excited, time trials are popular here, and like everywhere else in the world make each rider feel a little bit more ‘pro’.
This road pass was only sealed recently. Before that it was just a dirt track, hardly used, but became a critical route of survival for trapped villages following the Great Sichuan Earthquake which took nearly 70,000 lives. It’s a beautiful quiet climb, and the valley of Dujiangyan opens up the higher you go. I return to do a route check in December, and the snow at the top is heavy with ice and the hoarfrost impressive.
Back at the TT start we each get a number on a piece of paper and await our turn. Language barriers no longer exist after three days of riding together. We are all focused on exactly the same thing. This is the best part about cycling in China. The language of the bicycle.
On my bike in China I feel welcome. It’s a vehicle for exploring new friendships that open the mind. An implement so simple as some tubes and two wheels can be a conversation starter, a tool that crosses borders, an implement that brings joy, love, money, inspiration, debt, speed, adventure, friendships and health. There’s no time for East vs West here, we’re too busy turning the pedals.